Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Hitting students



A friend once joked that I love Arkansas so much that if they ever cut me open, they'll find an Arkansas-shaped heart beating inside my chest. It's true. With the exception of a year living in New Orleans, I've happily spent my entire life here. From Bono to Batesville. From Little Rock to Fayetteville. Arkansas may just be my one true love.

But just as the state was beginning to show off her spring beauty last week, I was reminded of what a dark and imperfect place Arkansas can be. Jerusalem Greer, the mother of Greenbrier High School student, tweeted that her son and two other students received paddlings after choosing to participate in the nationwide, 17-minute long school walkout for victims of the Parkland, Fla., shooting. The school acknowledged that it offered a choice between "corporal punishment" and in-school suspension to the students. The students chose the former. The national media quickly ran with the story and Arkansas was once again viewed as a backward, ignorant place.

Corporal punishment. That's the term the law and the schools use to refer to paddlings, swats, licks and spankings. From now on, I refuse to use that term. Let's be real. The truth is that school administrators and teachers are allowed to hit students in Arkansas as long as they act in substantial compliance with the school's policy. No formal hearing is required. No due process. Simply put, in Arkansas schools there are grown men and women hitting children with wooden boards and the law allows it.

Fortunately, some entire districts, such as Fayetteville and Little Rock, have banned the practice of spanking students, but across the state, schools like Greenbrier High still allow state employees to escort a student into the hall or office and, with a witness watching, strike a student on the buttocks. This is same teacher and administrator that the legislature declares a mandated reporter if they know of a child who is being abused, and that includes suffering from a non-accidental physical injury from their parent or guardian. Anyone else see the problem? Now, I know the law says the spankings are OK when they are reasonable and moderate. But I remember and I imagine most of us who went to public school remember the bruises and whelps on our classmates after they were spanked by a particular coach or teacher. I remember one teacher's paddle had round holes cut throughout it. Rumor was she designed it that way so she could swing it faster and harder. Does that sound reasonable or moderate? Honestly, is there anything reasonable or moderate about a grown man or woman being allowed to hit a child for participating in a peaceful demonstration at school?

Public school teachers have one of the hardest jobs around. They are underpaid and overworked. They are expected to be teachers, parents and guidance counselors. They often self-fund much of the learning in their classrooms. All the while being pressured to produce higher and higher test scores. And now it looks like we may make them take on the extra duty of being trained to respond to active shooters in schools. Despite my strong support for teachers, they should not be hitting children, after all we know about the links between behavior and punishment and violence. Before I had my daughters, I read somewhere that if I used physical force to discipline my child, I was taking the easy way out. Teaching children how to behave is hard and requires consistency and resolve. But we owe it to our kids to not just line them up against the wall and hit them. I want my daughters to do the right thing not out of fear of physical abuse or shame of being publicly humiliated, but I understand those are parenting tools many adults and legislators swear by.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), arguably our best and most forward-thinking Arkansas legislator, sponsored a bill in 2017 to end the brutal practice of spankings in our schools. It did not even make it out of committee. We should all be ashamed. And we should all call our legislators and ask them to co-sponsor a bill in the 2019 General Assembly ending school spankings. And, until then, we should call our school boards until they change the policy at a local level.

I do love Arkansas. I never want to live anywhere else. But as long as we keep allowing our school administrators and teachers to hit our children and until these forward-thinking young people who marched last week grow up and vote out our backward-thinking elected officials, my heart, Arkansas-shaped or not, will continue to break a little bit every single day.

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